One weekend a friend asked for book recommendations. Her requirements were simple: a novel written before her birth. The novel I recommended opens with this sentence: “The little boy named Ulysses Macauley one day stood over the new gopher hole in the backyard of his house on Santa Clara Avenue in Ithaca, California.”
After recommending the novel, I read it again on a snowy day. Once again the novel captivated me by its simple eloquence.
William Saroyan wrote The Human Comedy for his mother, a gift for her that he hoped would be translated into her native Armenian language. The novel remains a gift for all readers.
The Human Comedy shows some aspects of everyday life during World War II in a small farming community. The omniscient narrative voice focuses primarily on the Macauley family, living and dead. In writing of these ordinary wartime activities, Saroyan shows his passionate love for life. His narrative voice is full of wonder and love and a sense of grace, and he strives in this novel to stay ahead of death, a task not possible given Homer Macauley’s job as a Western Union telegram delivery messenger. While Homer may sing a telegram for a birthday, he also delivers notifications of battlefield deaths from the War Department: “We regret to inform you….” Saroyan shows us people on dates and in love. He shows aging and the decline of one form of technology—the telegraph and the telegraph operator. We see soldiers on leave and going to movies, drinking, trying to make sense of the war. And all the characters deal with the wonder of life. Indeed, Saroyan’s body of work grows from his sense of wonder and his understanding of a freedom connected with a universal kinship. From this perspective, Saroyan tends to make fun of the pompous and the politicians.
Here is a book that seems simple, but it shows readers Saroyan’s perspective—cheerful, world-weary, racing to cheat death, striving to celebrate the gift of life in all wonder.
And here we see life through the eyes of four-year-old Ulysses. Saroyan is perhaps at his best for me when he captures the serene innocence of the child:
He came quickly and quietly and stood beside her [his mother], then went to the hen nest to look for eggs. He found one. He looked at it a moment, picked it up, brought it to his mother and very carefully handed it to her, by which he meant what no man can guess and no child can remember to tell. (p. 13)
Originally written as a screenplay, The Human Comedy has been remade by Meg Ryan as Ithaca, starring Tom Hanks. Read the book. Watch the 1943 version of The Human Comedy, which stars Mickey Rooney, before seeing Ithaca.